Spain’s Language Wars Reignite in Catalonia

A family who went to court to ensure a quarter of the classes for their five-year-old son at a primary school are taught in Spanish were offered police protection Wednesday after they said they were harassed and abused. 

The family, residents of Canet de Mar, a Mediterranean coastal town 50 kilometers northeast of Barcelona, won their case at the Catalan High Court last week.

The case has spotlighted a bitter battle in Spain over languages and identity politics not just in Catalonia but in the Basque Country, Galicia, and the Balearic Islands.

Spain has four official languages: Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Basque. Officially they have equal status in law. However, Castilian emerged as the dominant language because of widespread use of the language across the empire from 1492 until 1976. One of the largest empires in the world, it covered large portions of the Americas, Europe, the Philippines and Africa.

During his rule from 1939 to 1975, General Francisco Franco banned the use of regional languages other than Castilian in schools and other public spaces. 

After democracy returned to Spain in 1978, the nationalist regional government in Catalonia adopted the so-called ‘linguistic immersion’ model to re-establish the language. Under this model, Catalan is the primary language in state schools. Other versions were implemented in the Basque Country and Galicia.

Angry reaction 

The actions of the family, whose identity has not been released to protect the child, prompted an angry reaction from Catalan nationalists and activists who claim their actions threaten the region’s language and culture.

Plataforma per la Lleguna Catalana, or Platform for the Catalan Language, a group that advocates for the Catalan language, condemned the court ruling in the Canet de Mar case. 

Oscar Escuder, the group’s president, said his organization did not oppose the teaching of Spanish in schools but wanted to defend the right to be taught Catalan well.

“We are not against any language. We just want people to be taught Catalan properly, not more than any other language,” he told VOA.

The organization pointed to a recent poll that found 82% of the 7.5 million residents of Catalonia surveyed support the linguistic immersion model. 

Josep González-Cambray, education minister for the pro-independence Catalan government, condemned threats to the family but told a press conference last week: “The Catalan school model is a model of success which guarantees us social cohesion, equity and equal opportunities.”

Vox, a far-right party, led a demonstration Tuesday in Barcelona demanding families have the right to speak Spanish while other right-wing political parties have seized on the issue.


Language is a potent political issue as Spain’s minority left-wing government depends on the support of nationalist parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country to pass laws.

Gloria Lagos, president of Hablamos Español, or We Speak Spanish, a group that promotes Spanish, said the issue of linguistic politics was not confined to Catalonia.

Other regions 

Maria Luisa Sánchez González, 44, went to court in San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, to fight for the right for her nine-year-old son to be taught in Spanish. She says all the classes were in Basque. 

She originally asked for him to be taught partly in Spanish at primary school but was told this was not available.

Sánchez says after suffering threats and abuse, she and her husband were victorious when a court ruled the Basque educational authorities failed to uphold her rights under the Spanish Constitution. Her son now goes to a school where 30% of classes are taught in Spanish — at a cost of $565 per month to regional authorities.

Ten years after the Basque separatist organization ETA declared a permanent cease-fire stopping a bloody 40-year conflict, sensibilities about the region’s language remain high.

“People in Catalonia are afraid to speak out about this, but they are more scared here in the Basque Country because only ten years ago if you said anything against the Basque language you got two shots in the head,” Sánchez told VOA. 

Paul Bilbao, of the Council of Social Entities in the Basque Country, which promotes Basque, told VOA that he would like to see a “total immersion model” in the region like Catalan model.

“That way we could ensure that all children left school with a proper level of the Basque language,” he said.

In Galicia, in northwestern Spain, Rodrigo Villar Cerviño, 49, a businessman, is considering taking legal action so his two children, aged nine and six, can be taught in Spanish instead of Galician.

“The teacher in my son’s class does not allow him to express himself in his mother tongue- Spanish — something which is a right in the Constitution. I have nothing against Galician, but I think my children will learn better in their mother tongue,” he told VOA. 

When VOA sought a response from the Galician regional government, a spokesman denied that pupils were prohibited from speaking Spanish in any school.

On Wednesday, the Spanish government and the pro-independence Catalan Republic Left party agreed a deal to guarantee the 2022 budget is passed. Under the deal, Spain will pay $16.9 million every year to Netflix, HBO and other streaming platforms to make 15% of their content in Catalan and other regional languages.

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